Birds and Bees, Sharp Eyes and Other Papers
Part 1 out of 3
Prof. Patricia C. Franks, Chairperson
Business Information Technologies Department
Lisa Carter, BIT Student
Danette Dulny, BIT Student
Charles Duvall, BIT Student
Cheri Ripley, BIT Student
Cheryl Sullivan, BIT Student
Broome Community College
Binghamton, NY 13902
Birds and Bees
And Other Papers
By John Burroughs
With An Introduction
By Mary E. Burt
And A Biographical Sketch
Introduction By Mary E. Burt
The Tragedies of the Nests
An Idyl of the Honey-Bee
The Pastoral Bees
Nature chose the spring of the year for the time of John Burroughs's
birth. A little before the day when the wake-robin shows itself,
that the observer might be on hand for the sight, he was born in
Roxbury, Delaware County, New York, on the western borders of the
Catskill Mountains; the precise date was April 3, 1837. Until 1863
he remained in the country about his native place, working on his
father's farm, getting his schooling in the district school and
neighboring academies, and taking his turn also as teacher. As he
himself has hinted, the originality, freshness, and wholesomeness of
his writings are probably due in great measure to the unliterary
surroundings of his early life, which allowed his mind to form itself
on unconventional lines, and to the later companionships with
unlettered men, which kept him in touch with the sturdy simplicities
>From the very beginnings of his taste for literature, the essay was his
favorite form. Dr. Johnson was the prophet of his youth, but he soon
transferred his allegiance to Emerson, who for many years remained his
"master enchanter." To cure himself of too close an imitation of the
Concord seer, which showed itself in his first magazine article,
Expression, he took to writing his sketches of nature, and about this
time he fell in with the writings of Thoreau, which doubtless confirmed
and encouraged him in this direction. But of all authors and of all
men, Walt Whitman, in his personality and as a literary force, seems to
have made the profoundest impression upon Mr. Burroughs, though
doubtless Emerson had a greater influence on his style of writing.
Expression appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1860, and most of his
contributions to literature have been in the form of papers first
published in the magazines, and afterwards collected into books.
He more than once paid tribute to his teachers in literature. His
first book, now out of print, was Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and
Person, published in 1867; and Whitman: A Study, which appeared in
1896, is a more extended treatment of the man and his poetry and
philosophy. Birds and Poets, too, contains a paper on Whitman,
entitled The Flight of the Eagle, besides an essay on Emerson, whom he
also treated incidentally in his paper, Matthew Arnold on Emerson and
Carlyle, in Indoor Studies; and the latter volume contains his essay
In the autumn of 1863 he went to Washington, and in the following
January entered the Treasury Department. He was for some years an
assistant in the office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and later
chief of the organization division of that Bureau. For some time he
was keeper of one of the vaults, and for a great part of the day his
only duty was to be at his desk. In these leisure hours his mind
traveled off into the country, where his previous life had been spent,
and with the help of his pen, always a faithful friend and magician,
he lived over again those happy days, now happier still with the
glamour of all past pleasures. In this way he wrote Wake-Robin and
a part of Winter Sunshine. It must not be supposed, however, that he
was deprived of outdoor pleasures while at Washington. On the
contrary, he enjoyed many walks in the suburbs of the capital, and in
those days the real country came up to the very edges of the city.
His Spring at the Capital, Winter Sunshine, A March Chronicle, and
other papers bear the fruit of his life on the Potomac. He went to
England in 1871 on business for the Treasury Department, and again on
his own account a dozen years later. The record of the two visits is
to be found mainly in his chapters on An October Abroad, contained in
the volume Winter Sunshine, and in the papers gathered into the volume
He resigned his place in the Treasury in 1873, and was appointed
receiver of a broken national bank. Later, until 1885, his business
occupation was that of a National Bank Examiner. An article
contributed by him to The Century Magazine for March, 1881, on Broken
Banks and Lax Directors, is perhaps the only literary outcome of this
occupation, but the keen powers of observation, trained in the field of
nature, could not fail to disclose themselves in analyzing columns of
figures. After leaving Washington Mr. Burroughs bought a fruit farm at
West Park, near Esopus, on the Hudson, and there building his house
from the stones found in his fields, has given himself the best
conditions for that humanizing of nature which constitutes the charm
of his books. He was married in 1857 to a lady living in the New York
village where he was at the time teaching. He keeps his country home
the year round, only occasionally visiting New York. The cultivation
of grapes absorbs the greater part of his time; but he has by no means
given over letters. His work, which has long found ready acceptance
both at home and abroad, is now passing into that security of fame
which comes from its entrance into the school-life of American
Besides his outdoor sketches and the other papers already mentioned,
Mr. Burroughs has written a number of critical essays on life and
literature, published in Indoor Studies, and other volumes. He has
a1so taken his readers into his confidence in An Egotistical Chapter,
the final one of his Indoor Studies; and in the Introduction to the
Riverside Edition of his writings he has given us further glimpses of
his private intellectual life.
Probably no other American writer has a greater sympathy with, and a
keener enjoyment of, country life in all its phases--farming, camping,
fishing, walking--than has John Burroughs. His books are redolent of
the soil, and have such "freshness and primal sweetness," that we need
not be told that the pleasure he gets from his walks and excursions is
by no means over when he steps inside his doors again. As he tells us
on more than one occasion, he finds he can get much more out of his
outdoor experiences by thinking them over, and writing them out
Numbers 28, 36, and 92 of the Riverside Literature Series consist of
selections from Mr. Burroughs's books. No. 28, which is entitled
Birds and Bees, is made up of Bird Enemies and The Tragedies of the
Nests from the volume Signs and Seasons, An Idyl of the Honey-Bee from
Pepacton, and The Pastoral Bees from Locusts and Wild Honey.
The Introduction, by Miss Mary E. Burt, gives an account of the use of
Mr. Burroughs's writings in Chicago schools.
In No. 36, Sharp Eyes, and Other Papers, the initial paper, Sharp Eyes,
is drawn from Locusts and Wild Honey, The Apple comes from Winter
Sunshine, A Taste of Maine Birch and Winter Neighbors from Signs and
Seasons, and Notes by the Way (on muskrats, squirrels, foxes, and
woodchucks) from Pepacton.
The collection called A Bunch of Herbs, and Other Papers, forming
No. 92 of the Series, was designed with special reference to what the
author has to say of trees and flowers, and contains A Bunch of Herbs
from Pepacton, Strawberries from Locusts and Wild Honey, A March
Chronicle and Autumn Tides from Winter Sunshine, A Spray of Pine and
A Spring Relish from Signs and Seasons, and English Woods: A Contrast
from Fresh Fields.
It is seldom that I find a book so far above children that I cannot
share its best thought with them. So when I first took up one of
John Burroughs's essays, I at once foresaw many a ramble with my pupils
through the enchanted country that is found within its breezy pages.
To read John Burroughs is to live in the woods and fields, and to
associate intimately with all their little timid inhabitants; to learn
"God made all the creatures and gave them our love and our fear,
To give sign, we and they are his children, one family here."
When I came to use Pepacton in my class of the sixth grade, I soon
found, not only that the children read better but that they came
rapidly to a better appreciation of the finer bits of literature in
their regular readers, while their interest in their new author grew
quickly to an enthusiasm. Never was a little brother or sister more
real to them than was "Peggy Mel" as she rushed into the hive laden
with stolen honey, while her neighbors gossiped about it, or the
stately elm that played sly tricks, or the log which proved to be
a good bedfellow because it did not grumble. Burroughs's way of
investing beasts, birds, insects, and inanimate things with human
motives is very pleasing to children. They like to trace analogies
between the human and the irrational, to think of a weed as a tramp
stealing rides, of Nature as a tell-tale when taken by surprise.
The quiet enthusiasm of John Burroughs's essays is much healthier than
the over-wrought dramatic action which sets all the nerves a-quiver,
--nerves already stimulated to excess by the comedies and tragedies
forced upon the daily lives of children. It is especially true of
children living in crowded cities, shut away from the woods and hills,
constant witnesses of the effects of human passion, that they need the
tonic of a quiet literature rather than the stimulant of a stormy or
dramatic one,--a literature which develops gentle feelings, deep
thought, and a relish for what is homely and homespun, rather than
a literature which calls forth excited feelings.
The essays in this volume are those in which my pupils have expressed
an enthusiastic interest, or which, after careful reading, I have
selected for future use. I have found in them few pages so hard as to
require over much study, or a too frequent use of the dictionary.
John Burroughs, more than almost any other writer of the time, has a
prevailing taste for simple words and simple constructions. "He that
runs may read" him. I have found many children under eleven years
of age who could read a whole page without hesitating. If I discover
some words which I foresee will cause difficulty, I place such on the
blackboard and rapidly pronounce and explain them before the reading.
Generally, however, I find the text the best interpreter of its words.
What follows explains what goes before, if the child is led to read on
to the end of the sentence. It is a mistake to allow children to be
frightened away from choice reading by an occasional hard word. There
is no better time than his reading lesson in which to teach a child
that the hard things of life are to be grappled with and overcome.
A mistake also, I think, is that toilsome process of explanation which
I sometimes find teachers following, under the impression that it will
be "parrot work" (as the stock phrase of the "institutes" has it) for
the pupils to read anything which they do not clearly and fully
comprehend. Teachers' definitions, in such cases, I have often
noticed, are no better than dictionary definitions, and surely
everybody knows that few more fruitless things than dictionary
definitions are ever crammed into the memory of a child. Better far
give free play to the native intelligence of the child, and trust it to
apprehend, though it may not yet comprehend nor be able to express its
apprehension in definition. On this subject I am glad to quote so high
an authority as Sir Walter Scott: "Indeed I rather suspect that
children derive impulses of a powerful and important kind from reading
things which they do not comprehend, and therefore that to write down
to children's understanding is a mistake. Set them on the scent and
let them puzzle it out."
>From time to time I have allowed my pupils to give me written reports
from memory of these essays, and have often found these little
compositions sparkling with pleasing information, or full of that
childlike fun which is characteristic of the author. I have marked
the errors in these exercises, and have given them back to the children
to rewrite. Sometimes the second papers show careful correction-and
sometimes the mistakes are partially neglected. Very often the child
wishes to improve on the first composition, and so adds new blunders
as well as creates new interest.
There is a law of self-preservation in Nature, which takes care of
mistakes. Every human soul reaches toward the light in the most direct
path open to it, and will correct its own errors as soon as it is
developed far enough. There is no use in trying to force maturity;
teachers who trouble children beyond all reason, and worry over their
mistakes, are fumbling at the roots of young plants that will grow
if they are let alone long enough.
The average mechanical work (spelling, construction of sentences,
writing, etc.) is better under this method than when more time is
devoted to the mechanics and less to the thought of composition.
I have seen many reports of Burroughs's essays from the pens of
children more pleasing and reliable than the essays of some
professional reviewers; in these papers I often find the children
adding little suggestions of their own; as, "Do birds dream?"
One of the girls says her bird "jumps in its sleep." A little ten year
old writes, "Weeds are unuseful flowers," and, "I like this book
because there are real things in it." Another thinks she "will look
more carefully " if she ever gets out into the country again. For the
development of close observation and good feeling toward the common
things of life, I know of no writings better than those of
MARY E. BURT
JONES SCHOOL, CHICAGO, Sept. 1, 1887.
How surely the birds know their enemies! See how the wrens and robins
and bluebirds pursue and scold the cat, while they take little or no
notice of the dog! Even the swallow will fight the cat, and, relying
too confidently upon its powers of flight, sometimes swoops down so
near to its enemy that it is caught by a sudden stroke of the cat's
paw. The only case I know of in which our small birds fail to
recognize their enemy is furnished by the shrike; apparently the little
birds do not know that this modest-colored bird is an assassin.
At least, I have never seen them scold or molest him, or utter any
outcries at his presence, as they usually do at birds of prey.
Probably it is because the shrike is a rare visitant, and is not found
in this part of the country during the nesting season of our songsters.
But the birds have nearly all found out the trick the jay, and when he
comes sneaking through the trees in May and June in quest of eggs,
he is quickly exposed and roundly abused. It is amusing to see the
robins hustle him out of the tree which holds their nest. They cry
"Thief, thief!" to the top of their voices as they charge upon him,
and the jay retorts in a voice scarcely less complimentary as he
The jays have their enemies also, and need to keep an eye on their own
eggs. It would be interesting to know if jays ever rob jays, or crows
plunder crows; or is there honor among thieves even in the feathered
tribes? I suspect the jay is often punished by birds which are
otherwise innocent of nest-robbing. One season I found a jay's nest in
a small cedar on the side of a wooded ridge. It held five eggs, every
one of which had been punctured. Apparently some bird had driven its
sharp beak through their shells, with the sole intention of destroying
them, for no part of the contents of the eggs had been removed.
It looked like a case of revenge; as if some thrush or warbler,
whose nest had suffered at the hands of the jays, had watched its
opportunity, and had in this way retaliated upon its enemies. An egg
for an egg. The jays were lingering near, very demure and silent, and
probably ready to join a crusade against nest-robbers.
The great bugaboo of the birds is the owl. The owl snatches them from
off their roosts at night, and gobbles up the1r eggs and young in their
nests. He is a veritable ogre to them, and his presence fills them
with consternation and alarm.
One season, to protect my early cherries I placed a large stuffed owl
amid the branches of the tree. Such a racket as there instantly began
about my grounds is not pleasant to think upon! The orioles and robins
fairly "shrieked out their affright." The news instantly spread in
every direction, and apparently every bird in town came to see that
owl in the cherry-tree, and every bird took a cherry, so that I
lost more fruit than if I had left the owl in-doors. With craning
necks and horrified looks the birds alighted upon the branches, and
between their screams would snatch off a cherry, as if the act was some
relief to their outraged feelings.
The chirp and chatter of the young of birds which build in concealed or
inclosed places, like the woodpeckers, the house wren, the high-hole,
the oriole, is in marked contrast to the silence of the fledglings of
most birds that build open and exposed nests. The young of the
sparrows,--unless the social sparrow be an exception,--warblers,
fly-catchers, thrushes, never allow a sound to escape them; and on the
alarm note of their parents being heard, sit especially close and
motionless, while the young of chimney swallows, woodpeckers, and
orioles are very noisy. The latter, in its deep pouch, is quite safe
from birds of prey, except perhaps the owl. The owl, I suspect,
thrusts its leg into the cavities of woodpeckers and into the
pocket-like nest of the oriole, and clutches and brings forth the birds
in its talons. In one case which I heard of, a screech-owl had thrust
its claw into a cavity in a tree, and grasped the head of a red-headed
woodpecker; being apparently unable to draw its prey forth, it had
thrust its own round head into the hole, and in some way became fixed
there, and had thus died with the woodpecker in its talons.
The life of birds is beset with dangers and mishaps of which we know
little. One day, in my walk, I came upon a goldfinch with the tip of
one wing securely fastened to the feathers of its rump, by what
appeared to be the silk of some caterpillar. The bird, though
uninjured, was completely crippled, and could not fly a stroke.
Its little body was hot and panting in my hands, as I carefully broke
the fetter. Then it darted swiftly away with a happy cry. A record of
all the accidents and tragedies of bird life for a single season would
show many curious incidents. A friend of mine opened his box-stove one
fall to kindle a fire in it, when he beheld in the black interior the
desiccated forms of two bluebirds. The birds had probably taken refuge
in the chimney during some cold spring storm, and had come down the
pipe to the stove, from whence they were unable to ascend.
A peculiarly touching little incident of bird life occurred to a caged
female canary. Though unmated, it laid some eggs, and the happy bird
was so carried away by her feelings that she would offer food to the
eggs, and chatter and twitter, trying, as it seemed, to encourage them
to eat! The incident is hardly tragic, neither is it comic.
Certain birds nest in the vicinity of our houses and outbuildings,
or even in and upon them, for protection from their enemies, but they
often thus expose themselves to a plague of the most deadly character.
I refer to the vermin with which their nests often swarm, and which
kill the young before they are fledged. In a state of nature this
probably never happens; at least I have never seen or heard of it
happening to nests placed in trees or under rocks. It is the curse
of civilization falling upon the birds which come too near man.
The vermin, or the germ of the vermin, is probably conveyed to the nest
in hen's feathers, or in straws and hairs picked up about the barn or
hen-house. A robin's nest upon your porch or in your summer-house will
occasionally become an intolerable nuisance from the swarms upon swarms
of minute vermin with which it is filled. The parent birds stem the
tide as long as they can, but are often compelled to leave the young to
their terrible fate.
One season a phoebe-bird built on a projecting stone under the eaves of
the house, and all appeared to go well till the young were nearly
fledged, when the nest suddenly became a bit of purgatory. The birds
kept their places in their burning bed till they could hold no longer,
when they leaped forth and fell dead upon the ground.
After a delay of a week or more, during which I imagine the parent
birds purified themselves by every means known to them, the couple
built another nest a few yards from the first, and proceeded to rear
a second brood; but the new nest developed into the same bed of torment
that the first did, and the three young birds, nearly ready to fly,
perished as they sat within it. The parent birds then left the place
as if it had been accursed.
I imagine the smaller birds have an enemy in our native white-footed
mouse, though I have not proof enough to convict him. But one season
the nest of a chickadee which I was observing was broken up in a
position where nothing but a mouse could have reached it. The bird had
chosen a cavity in the limb of an apple-tree which stood but a few
yards from the house. The cavity was deep, and the entrance to it,
which was ten feet from the ground, was small. Barely light enough was
admitted, when the sun was in the most favorable position, to enable
one to make out the number of eggs, which was six, at the bottom of
the dim interior. While one was peering in and trying to get his head
out of his own light, the bird would startle him by a queer kind of
puffing sound. She would not leave her nest like most birds, but
really tried to blow or scare the intruder away; and after repeated
experiments I could hardly refrain from jerking my head back when that
little explosion of sound came up from the dark interior. One night,
when incubation was about half finished, the nest was harried.
A slight trace of hair or fur at the entrance led me to infer that some
small animal was the robber. A weasel might have done it, as they
sometimes climb trees, but I doubt if either a squirrel or a rat could
have passed the entrance.
Probably few persons have ever suspected the cat-bird of being an
egg-sucker; I do not know that she has ever been accused of such
a thing, but there is something uncanny and disagreeable about her,
which I at once understood, when I one day caught her in the very act
of going through a nest of eggs.
A pair of the least fly-catchers, the bird which says chebec, chebec,
and is a small edition of the pewee, one season built their nest where
I had them for many hours each day under my observation. The nest was
a very snug and compact structure placed in the forks of a small maple
about twelve feet from the ground. The season before, a red squirrel
had harried the nest of a wood-thrush in this same tree, and I was
apprehensive that he would serve the fly-catchers the same trick;
so, as I sat with my book in a summer-house near by, I kept my loaded
gun within easy reach. One egg was laid, and the next morning, as I
made my daily inspection of the nest, only a fragment of its empty
shell was to be found. This I removed, mentally imprecating the rogue
of a red squirrel. The birds were much disturbed by the event, but did
not desert the nest, as I had feared they would, but after much
inspection of it and many consultations together, concluded, it seems,
to try again. Two more eggs were laid, when one day I heard the birds
utter a sharp cry, and on looking up I saw a cat-bird perched upon the
rim of the nest, hastily devouring the eggs. I soon regretted my
precipitation in killing her, because such interference is generally
unwise. It turned out that she had a nest of her own with five eggs in
a spruce-tree near my window.
Then this pair of little fly-catchers did what I had never seen birds
do before; they pulled the nest to pieces and rebuilt it in a
peach-tree not many rods away, where a brood was successfully reared.
The nest was here exposed to the direct rays of the noon-day sun, and
to shield her young when the heat was greatest, the mother-bird would
stand above them with wings slightly spread, as other birds have been
know to do under like circumstances.
To what extent the cat-bird is a nest-robber I have no evidence,
but that feline mew of hers, and that flirting, flexible tail, suggest
something not entirely bird-like.
Probably the darkest tragedy of the nest is enacted when a snake
plunders it. All birds and animals, so far I have observed, behave
in a peculiar manner toward a snake. They seem to feel something of
the loathing toward it that the human species experiences. The bark of
a dog when he encounters a snake is different from that which he gives
out on any other occasion; it is a mingled note of alarm, inquiry,
One day a tragedy was enacted a few yards from where I was sitting with
a book; two song-sparrows trying to defend their nest against a black
snake. The curious, interrogating note of a chicken who had suddenly
come upon the scene in his walk caused me to look up from my reading.
There were the sparrows, with wings raised in a way peculiarly
expressive of horror and dismay, rushing about a low clump of grass
and bushes. Then, looking more closely, I saw the glistening form of
the black snake and the quick movement of his head as he tried to seize
the birds. The sparrows darted about and through the grass and weeds,
trying to beat the snake off. Their tails and wings were spread,
and, panting with the heat and the desperate struggle, they presented
a most singular spectacle. They uttered no cry, not a sound escaped
them; they were plainly speechless with horror and dismay. Not once
did they drop their wings, and the peculiar expression of those
uplifted palms, as it were, I shall never forget. It occurred to me
that perhaps here was a case of attempted bird-charming on the part of
the snake, so I looked on from behind the fence. The birds charged the
snake and harassed him from every side, but were evidently under no
spell save that of courage in defending their nest. Every moment or
two I could see the head and neck of the serpent make a sweep at the
birds, when the one struck at would fall back, and the other would
renew the assault from the rear. There appeared to be little danger
that the snake could strike and hold one of the birds, though I
rembled for them, they were so bold and approached so near to the
snake's head. Time and again he sprang at them, but without success.
How the poor things panted, and held up their wings appealingly!
Then the snake glided off to the near fence, barely escaping the stone
which I hurled at him. I found the nest rifled and deranged; whether
it had contained eggs or young I know not. The male sparrow had
cheered me many a day with his song, and I blamed myself for not having
rushed at once to the rescue, when the arch enemy was upon him.
There is probably little truth in the popular notion that snakes charm
birds. The black snake is the most subtle, alert, and devilish of our
snakes, and I have never seen him have any but young, helpless birds
in his mouth.
We have one parasitical bird, the cow-bird, so-called because it walks
about amid the grazing cattle and seizes the insects which their heavy
tread sets going, which is an enemy of most of the smaller birds.
It drops its egg in the nest of the song-sparrow, the social sparrow,
the snow-bird, the vireos, and the wood-warblers, and as a rule it is
the only egg in the nest that issues successfully. Either the eggs of
the rightful owner of the nest are not hatched, or else the young are
overridden and overreached by the parasite and perish prematurely.
Among the worst enemies of our birds are the so-called "collectors,"
men who plunder nests and murder their owners in the name of science.
Not the genuine ornithologist, for no one is more careful of
squandering bird life than he; but the sham ornithologist, the man
whose vanity or affectation happens to take an ornithological turn.
He is seized with an itching for a collection of eggs and birds because
it happens to be the fashion, or because it gives him the air of a man
of science. But in the majority of cases the motive is a mercenary
one; the collector expects to sell these spoils of the groves and
orchards. Robbing the nests and killing birds becomes a business with
him. He goes about it systematically, and becomes expert in
circumventing and slaying our songsters. Every town of any
considerable size is infested with one or more of these bird
highwaymen, and every nest in the country round about that the wretches
can lay hands on is harried. Their professional term for a nest of
eggs is "a clutch," a word that well expresses the work of their
grasping, murderous fingers. They clutch and destroy in the germ the
life and music of the woodlands. Certain of our natural history
journals are mainly organs of communication between these human
weasels. They record their exploits at nest-robbing and bird-slaying
in their columns. One collector tells with gusto how he "worked
his way" through an orchard, ransacking every tree, and leaving, as he
believed, not one nest behind him. He had better not be caught working
his way through my orchard. Another gloats over the number of
Connecticut warblers--a rare bird--he killed in one season in
Massachusetts. Another tells how a mocking-bird appeared in southern
New England and was hunted down by himself and friend, its eggs
"clutched," and the bird killed. Who knows how much the bird lovers of
New England lost by that foul deed? The progeny of the birds would
probably have returned to Connecticut to breed, and their progeny,
or a part of them, the same, till in time the famous songster would
have become a regular visitant to New England. In the same journal
still another collector describes minutely how he outwitted three
humming birds and captured their nests and eggs,--a clutch he was very
proud of. A Massachusetts bird harrier boasts of his clutch of the
egg's of that dainty little warbler, the blue yellow-back. One season
he took two sets, the next five sets, the next four sets, besides some
single eggs, and the next season four sets, and says he might have
found more had he had more time. One season he took, in about twenty
days, three from one tree. I have heard of a collector who boasted of
having taken one hundred sets of the eggs of the marsh wren, in a
single day; of another, who took in the same time, thirty nests of the
yellow-breasted chat; and of still another, who claimed to have taken
one thousand sets of eggs of different birds in one season. A large
business has grown up under the influence of this collecting craze.
One dealer in eggs has those of over five hundred species. He says
that his business in 1883 was twice that of 1882; in 1884 it was twice
that of 1883, and so on. Collectors vie with each other in the extent
and variety of their cabinets. They not only obtain eggs in sets,
but aim to have a number of sets of the same bird so as to show all
possible variations. I hear of a private collection that contains
twelve sets of kingbirds' eggs, eight sets of house-wrens' eggs,
four sets mocking-birds' eggs, etc.; sets of eggs taken in low trees,
high trees, medium trees; spotted sets, dark sets, plain sets, and
light sets of the same species of bird. Many collections are made on
this latter plan.
Thus are our birds hunted and cut off and all in the name of science;
as if science had not long ago finished with these birds. She has
weighed and measured, and dissected, and described them, and their
nests, and eggs, and placed them in her cabinet; and the interest of
science and of humanity now demands that this wholesale nest-robbing
cease. These incidents I have given above, it is true, are but drops
in the bucket, but the bucket would be more than full if we could get
all the facts. Where one man publishes his notes, hundreds, perhaps
thousands, say nothing, but go as silently about their nest-robbing
It is true that the student of ornithology often feels compelled to
take bird-life. It is not an easy matter to "name all the birds
without a gun," though an opera-glass will often render identification
entirely certain, and leave the songster unharmed; but once having
mastered the birds, the true ornithologist leaves his gun at home.
This view of the case may not be agreeable to that desiccated mortal
called the "closet naturalist," but for my own part the closet
naturalist is a person with whom I have very little sympathy.
He is about the most wearisome and profitless creature in existence.
With his piles of skins, his cases of eggs, his laborious
feather-splitting, and his outlandish nomenclature, he is not only
the enemy of the birds but the enemy of all those who would know
Not the collectors alone are to blame for the diminishing numbers of
our wild birds, but a large share of the responsibility rests upon
quite a different class of persons, namely, the milliners. False taste
in dress is as destructive to our feathered friends as are false aims
in science. It is said that the traffic in the skins of our brighter
plumaged birds, arising from their use by the milliners, reaches to
hundreds of thousands annually. I am told of one middleman who
collected from the shooters in one district, in four months, seventy
thousand skins. It is a barbarous taste that craves this kind of
ornamentation. Think of a woman or girl of real refinement appearing
upon the street with her head gear adorned with the scalps of
It is probably true that the number of our birds destroyed by man is
but a small percentage of the number cut off by their natural enemies;
but it is to be remembered that those he destroys are in addition to
those thus cut off, and that it is this extra or artificial destruction
that disturbs the balance of nature. The operation of natural causes
keeps the birds in check, but the greed of the collectors and milliners
tends to their extinction.
I can pardon a man who wishes to make a collection of eggs and birds
for his own private use, if he will content himself with one or two
specimens of a kind, though he will find any collection much less
satisfactory and less valuable than he imagines, but the professional
nest-robber and skin collector should be put down, either by
legis1ation or with dogs and shotguns.
I have remarked above that there is probably very little truth in the
popular notion that snakes can "charm" birds. But two of my
correspondents have each furnished me with an incident from his own
experience, which seems to confirm the popular belief. One of them
writes from Georgia as follows:--
"Some twenty-eight years ago I was in Calaveras County, California,
engaged in cutting lumber. One day in coming out of the camp or cabin,
my attention was attracted to the curious action of a quail in the air,
which, instead of flying low and straight ahead as usual, was some
fifty feet high, flying in a circle, and uttering cries of distress.
I watched the bird and saw it gradually descend, and following with my
eye in a line from the bird to the ground saw a large snake with head
erect and some ten or twelve inches above the ground, and mouth wide
open, and as far as I could see, gazing intently on the quail (I was
about thirty feet from the snake). The quail gradually descended, its
circles growing smaller and smaller and all the time uttering cries of
distress, until its feet were within two or three inches of the mouth
of the snake; when I threw a stone, and though not hitting the snake,
yet struck the ground so near as to frighten him, and he gradually
started off. The quail, however, fell to the ground, apparently
lifeless. I went forward and picked it up and found it was thoroughly
overcome with fright, its little heart beating as if it would burst
through the skin. After holding it in my hand a few moments it flew
away. I then tried to find the snake, but could not. I am unable to
say whether the snake was venomous or belonged to the constricting
family, like the black snake. I can well recollect it was large and
moved off rather slow. As I had never seen anything of the kind
before, it made a great impression on my mind, and after the lapse of
so long a time, the incident appears as vivid to me as though it had
It is not probable that the snake had its mouth open; its darting
tongue may have given that impression.
The other incident comes to me from Vermont. "While returning from
church in 1876," says the writer, "as I was crossing a bridge...
I noticed a striped snake in the act of charming a song-sparrow.
They were both upon the sand beneath the bridge. The snake kept his
head swaying slowly from side to side, and darted his tongue out
continually. The bird, not over a foot away, was facing the snake,
hopping from one foot to the other, and uttering a dissatisfied little
chirp. I watched them till the snake seized the bird, having gradually
drawn nearer. As he seized it, I leaped over the side of the bridge;
the snake glided away and I took up the bird, which he had dropped.
It was too frightened to try to fly and I carried it nearly a mile
before it flew from my open hand."
If these observers are quite sure of what they saw, then undoubtedly
snakes have the power to draw birds within their grasp. I remember
that my mother told me that while gathering wild strawberries she
had on one occasion come upon a bird fluttering about the head of a
snake as if held there by a spell. On her appearance, the snake
lowered its head and made off, and the panting bird flew away.
A neighbor of mine killed a black snake which had swallowed a
full-grown red squirrel, probably captured by the same power of
THE TRAGEDIES OF THE NESTS
The life of the birds, especially of our migratory song-birds, is a
series of adventures and of hair-breadth escapes by flood and field.
Very few of them probably die a natural death, or even live out half
their appointed days. The home instinct is strong in birds as it is in
most creatures; and I am convinced that every spring a large number of
those which have survived the Southern campaign return to their old
haunts to breed. A Connecticut farmer took me out under his porch,
one April day, and showed me a phoebe bird's nest six stories high.
The same bird had no doubt returned year after year; and as there was
room for only one nest upon her favorite shelf, she had each season
reared a new superstructure upon the old as a foundation. I have heard
of a white robin--an albino--that nested several years in succession in
the suburbs of a Maryland city. A sparrow with a very marked
peculiarity of song I have heard several seasons in my own locality.
But the birds do not all live to return to their old haunts:
the bobolinks and starlings run a gauntlet of fire from the Hudson to
the Savannah, and the robins and meadow-larks and other song-birds are
shot by boys and pot-hunters in great numbers,--to say nothing of their
danger from hawks and owls. But of those that do return, what perils
beset their nests, even in the most favored localities! The cabins of
the early settlers, when the country was swarming with hostile Indians,
were not surrounded by such dangers. The tender households of the
birds are not only exposed to hostile Indians in the shape of cats and
collectors, but to numerous murderous and bloodthirsty animals, against
whom they have no defense but concealment. They lead the darkest kind
of pioneer life, even in our gardens and orchards, and under the walls
of our houses. Not a day or a night passes, from the time the eggs are
laid till the young are flown, when the chances are not greatly in
favor of the nest being rifled and its contents devoured,--by owls,
skunks, minks, and coons at night, and by crows, jays, squirrels,
weasels, snakes, and rats during the day. Infancy, we say, is hedged
about by many perils; but the infancy of birds is cradled and pillowed
in peril. An old Michigan settler told me that the first six children
that were born to him died; malaria and teething invariably carried
them off when they had reached a certain age; but other children were
born, the country improved, and by and by the babies weathered the
critical period and the next six lived and grew up. The birds, too,
would no doubt persevere six times and twice six times, if the season
were long enough, and finally rear their family, but the waning summer
cuts them short, and but a few species have the heart and strength to
make even the third trial.
The first nest-builders in spring, like the first settlers near hostile
tribes, suffer the most casualties. A large portion of the nests of
April and May are destroyed; their enemies have been many months
without eggs and their appetites are keen for them. It is a time,
too, when other food is scarce, and the crows and squirrels are hard
put. But the second nests of June, and still more the nests of July
and August, are seldom molested. It is rarely that the nest of the
goldfinch or the cedar-bird is harried.
My neighborhood on the Hudson is perhaps exceptionally unfavorable as
a breeding haunt for birds, owing to the abundance of fish-crows and
of red squirrels; and the season of which this chapter is mainly a
chronicle, the season of 1881, seems to have been a black-letter one
even for this place, for at least nine nests out of every ten that I
observed during that spring and summer failed of their proper issue.
>From the first nest I noted, which was that of a bluebird,--built
(very imprudently I thought at the time) in a squirrel-hole in a
decayed apple-tree, about the last of April, and which came to naught,
even the mother-bird, I suspect, perishing by a violent death,--to the
last, which was that of a snow-bird, observed in August, among the
Catskills, deftly concealed in a mossy bank by the side of a road that
skirted a wood, where the tall thimble blackberries grew in abundance,
from which the last young one was taken, when it was about half grown,
by some nocturnal walker or daylight prowler, some untoward fate seemed
hovering about them. It was a season of calamities, of violent deaths,
of pillage and massacre, among our feathered neighbors. For the first
time I noticed that the orioles were not safe in their strong, pendent
nests. Three broods were started in the apple-trees, only a few yards
from the house, where, for previous seasons, the birds had nested
without molestation; but this time the young were all destroyed when
about half grown. Their chirping and chattering, which was so
noticeable one day, suddenly ceased the next. The nests were probably
plundered at night, and doubtless by the little red screech-owl, which
I know is a denizen of these old orchards, living in the deeper
cavities of the trees. The owl could alight on the top of the nest,
and easily thrust his murderous claw down into its long pocket and
seize the young and draw them forth. The tragedy of one of the nests
was heightened, or at least made more palpable, by one of the
half-fledged birds, either in its attempt to escape or while in the
clutches of the enemy, being caught and entangled in one of the
horse-hairs by which the nest was stayed and held to the limb above.
There it hung bruised and dead, gibbeted to its own cradle. This nest
was the theatre of another little tragedy later in the season.
Some time in August a bluebird, indulging its propensity to peep and
pry into holes and crevices, alighted upon it and probably inspected
the interior; but by some unlucky move it got its wings entangled in
this same fatal horse-hair. Its efforts to free itself appeared only
to result in its being more securely and hopelessly bound; and there it
perished; and there its form, dried and embalmed by the summer heats,
was yet hanging in September, the outspread wings and plumage showing
nearly as bright as in life.
A correspondent writes me that one of his orioles got entangled in a
cord while building her nest, and that though by the aid of a ladder
he reached and liberated her, she died soon afterward. He also found
a "chippie" (called also "hair bird") suspended from a branch by a
horse-hair, beneath a partly constructed nest. I heard of a
cedar-bird caught and destroyed in the same way, and of two young
bluebirds, around whose legs a horse-hair had become so tightly wound
that the legs withered up and dropped off. The birds became fledged,
and left the nest with the others. Such tragedies are probably
Before the advent of civilization in this country, the oriole probably
built a much deeper nest than it usually does at present. When now it
builds in remote trees and along the borders of the woods, its nest,
I have noticed, is long and gourd-shaped; but in orchards and near
dwellings it is only a deep cup or pouch. It shortens it up in
proportion as the danger lessens. Probably a succession of disastrous
years, like the one under review, would cause it to lengthen it again
beyond the reach of owl's talons or jay-bird's beak.
The first song-sparrow's nest I observed in the spring of 1881 was in
the field under a fragment of a board, the board being raised from the
ground a couple of inches by two poles. It had its full complement
of eggs, and probably sent forth a brood of young birds, though as to
this I cannot speak positively, as I neglected to observe it further.
It was well sheltered and concealed, and was not easily come at by any
of its natural enemies, save snakes and weasels. But concealment often
avails little. In May, a song-sparrow, that had evidently met with
disaster earlier in the season, built its nest in a thick mass of
woodbine against the side of my house, about fifteen feet from the
ground. Perhaps it took the hint from its cousin, the English sparrow.
The nest was admirably placed, protected from the storms by the
overhanging eaves and from all eyes by the thick screen of leaves.
Only by patiently watching the suspicious bird, as she lingered near
with food in her beak, did I discover its whereabouts. That brood is
safe, I thought, beyond doubt. But it was not; the nest was pillaged
one night, either by an owl, or else by a rat that had climbed into the
vine, seeking an entrance to the house. The mother-bird, after
reflecting upon her ill-luck about a week, seemed to resolve to
try a different system of tactics and to throw all appearances of
concealment aside. She built a nest few yards from the house beside
the drive, upon a smooth piece of greensward. There was not a weed or
a shrub or anything whatever to conceal it or mark its site.
The structure was completed and incubation had begun before I
discovered what was going on. "Well, well," I said, looking down upon
the bird almost at my feet, "this is going to the other extreme indeed;
now, the cats will have you." The desperate little bird sat there day
after day, looking like a brown leaf pressed down in the short green
grass. As the weather grew hot, her position became very trying.
It was no longer a question of keeping the eggs warm, but of keeping
them from roasting. The sun had no mercy on her, and she fairly panted
in the middle of the day. In such an emergency the male robin has been
known to perch above the sitting female and shade her with his
outstretched wings. But in this case there was no perch for the male
bird, had he been disposed to make a sunshade of himself. I thought to
lend a hand in this direction myself, and so stuck a leafy twig beside
the nest. This was probably an unwise interference; it guided disaster
to the spot; the nest was broken up, and the mother-bird was probably
caught, as I never saw her afterward.
For several previous summers a pair of kingbirds had reared,
unmolested, a brood of young in an apple-tree, only a few yards from
the house; but during this season disaster overtook them also.
The nest was completed, the eggs laid, and incubation had begun,
when, one morning about sunrise, I heard cries of distress and alarm
proceed from the old apple-tree. Looking out of the window I saw a
crow, which I knew to be a fish-crow, perched upon the edge of the
nest, hastily bolting the eggs. The parent birds, usually so ready for
the attack, seemed over-come with grief and alarm. They fluttered
about in the most helpless and bewildered manner, and it was not till
the robber fled on my approach that they recovered themselves and
charged upon him. The crow scurried away with upturned, threatening
head, the furious kingbirds fairly upon his back. The pair lingered
around their desecrated nest for several days, almost silent,
and saddened by their loss, and then disappeared. They probably made
another trial elsewhere.
The fish-crow only fishes when it has destroyed all the eggs and young
birds it can find. It is the most despicable thief and robber among
our feathered creatures. From May to August, it is gorged with the
fledglings of the nest. It is fortunate that its range is so limited.
In size it is smaller than the common crow, and is a much less noble
and dignified bird. Its caw is weak and feminine--a sort of split and
abortive caw, that stamps it the sneak-thief it is. This crow is
common farther south, but is not found in this State, so far as I have
observed, except in the valley of the Hudson.
One season a pair of them built a nest in a Norway Spruce that stood
amid a dense growth of other ornamental trees near a large unoccupied
house. They sat down amid plenty. The wolf established himself in
the fold. The many birds--robins, thrushes, finches, vireos, pewees--
that seek the vicinity of dwellings (especially of these large country
residences with their many trees and park-like grounds), for the
greater safety of their eggs and young, were the easy and convenient
victims of these robbers. They plundered right and left, and were not
disturbed till their young were nearly fledged, when some boys, who had
long before marked them as their prize, rifled the nest.
The song-birds nearly all build low; their cradle is not upon the
tree-top. It is only birds of prey that fear danger from below more
than from above, and that seek the higher branches for their nests.
A line five feet from the ground would run above more than half the
nests, and one ten feet would bound more than three fourths of them.
It is only the oriole and the wood pewee that, as a rule, go higher
than this. The crows and jays and other enemies of the birds have
learned to explore this belt pretty thoroughly. But the leaves and
the protective coloring of most nests baffle them as effectually,
no doubt as they do the professional o÷logist. The nest of the
red-eyed vireo is one of the most artfully placed in the wood. It is
just beyond the point where the eye naturally pauses in its search;
namely, on the extreme end of the lowest branch of the tree, usually
four or five feet from the ground. One looks up and down through the
tree,--shoots his eye-beams into it as he might discharge his gun at
some game hidden there, but the drooping tip of that low horizontal
branch--who would think of pointing his piece just there? If a crow or
other marauder were to alight upon the branch or upon those above it,
the nest would be screened from him by the large leaf that usually
forms a canopy immediately above it. The nest-hunter standing at the
foot of the tree and looking straight before him, might discover it
easily, were it not for its soft, neutral gray tint which blends so
thoroughly with the trunks and branches of trees. Indeed, I think
there is no nest in the woods--no arboreal nest--so well concealed.
The last one I saw was a pendent from the end of a low branch of a
maple, that nearly grazed the clapboards of an unused hay-barn in a
remote backwoods clearing. I peeped through a crack and saw the old
birds feed the nearly fledged young within a few inches of my face.
And yet the cow-bird finds this nest and drops her parasitical egg in
it. Her tactics in this as in other cases are probably to watch the
movements of the parent bird. She may often be seen searching
anxiously through the trees or bushes for a suitable nest, yet she may
still oftener be seen perched upon some good point of observation
watching the birds as they come and go about her. There is no doubt
that, in many cases, the cow-bird makes room for her own illegitimate
egg in the nest by removing one of the bird's own. When the cow-bird
finds two or more eggs in a nest in which she wishes to deposit her
own, she will remove one of them. I found a sparrow's nest with two
sparrow's eggs and one cow-bird's egg, another egg lying a foot or so
below it on the ground. I replaced the ejected egg, and the next day
found it again removed, and another cow-bird's egg in its place;
I put it back the second time, when it was again ejected, or destroyed,
for I failed to find it anywhere. Very alert and sensitive birds like
the warblers often bury the strange egg beneath a second nest built on
top of the old. A lady, living in the suburbs of an eastern city,
one morning heard cries of distress from a pair of house-wrens that had
a nest in a honeysuckle on her front porch. On looking out of the
window, she beheld this little comedy--comedy from her point of view,
but no doubt grim-tragedy from the point of view of the wrens;
a cow-bird with a wren's egg in its beak running rapidly along the walk
with the outraged wrens forming a procession behind it, screaming,
scolding, and gesticulating as only these voluble little birds can.
The cow-bird had probably been surprised in the act of violating the
nest, and the wrens were giving her a piece of theirs minds.
Every cow-bird is reared at the expense of two or more song-birds.
For every one of these dusky little pedestrians there amid the grazing
cattle there are two more sparrows, or vireos, or warblers, the less.
It is a big price to pay--two larks for a bunting-two sovereigns for
a shilling; but Nature does not hesitate occasionally to contradict
herself in just this way. The young of the cow-bird is
disproportionately large and aggressive, one might say hoggish.
When disturbed it will clasp the nest and scream, and snap its beak
threateningly. One hatched out in a song-sparrow's nest which was
under my observation, and would soon have overridden and overborne the
young sparrow, which came out of the shell a few hours later, had I not
interfered from time to time and lent the young sparrow a helping hand.
Every day I would visit the nest and take the sparrow out from under
the pot-bellied interloper and place it on top so that presently it was
able to hold its own against its enemy. Both birds became fledged and
left the nest about the same time. Whether the race was an even one
after that, I know not.
I noted but two warblers' nests during that season, one of the
black-throated blue-back and one of the redstart,--the latter built
in an apple-tree but a few yards from a little rustic summer-house
where I idle away many summer days. The lively little birds, darting
and flashing about, attracted my attention for a week before I
discovered their nest. They probably built it by working early in the
morning, before I appeared upon the scene, as I never saw them with
material in their beaks. Guessing from their movements that the nest
was in a large maple that stood near by, I climbed the tree and
explored it thoroughly, looking especially in the forks of the
branches, as the authorities say these birds build in a fork.
But no nest could I find. Indeed, how can one by searching find a
bird's nest? I overshot the mark; the nest was much nearer me, almost
under my very nose, and I discovered it, not by searching but by a
casual glance of the eye, while thinking of other matters. The bird
was just settling upon it as I looked up from my book and caught her in
the act. The nest was built near the end of a long, knotty, horizontal
branch of an apple-tree, but effectually hidden by the grouping of the
leaves; it had three eggs, one of which proved to be barren. The two
young birds grew apace, and were out of the nest early in the second
week; but something caught one of them the first night. The other
probably grew to maturity, as it disappeared from the vicinity with
its parents after some days.
The blue-back's nest was scarcely a foot from the ground, in a little
bush situated in a low, dense wood of hemlock and beech and maple,
amid the Catskills,--a deep, massive, elaborate structure, in which the
sitting bird sank till her beak and tail alone were visible above
the brim. It was a misty, chilly day when I chanced to find the nest,
and the mother-bird knew instinctively that it was not prudent to leave
her four half incubated eggs uncovered and exposed for a moment.
When I sat down near the nest she grew very uneasy, and after trying in
vain to decoy me away by suddenly dropping from the branches and
dragging herself over the ground as if mortally wounded, she approached
and timidly and half doubtingly covered her eggs within two yards of
where I sat. I disturbed her several times to note her ways.
There came to be something almost appealing in her looks and manner,
and she would keep her place on her precious eggs till my outstretched
hand was within a few feet of her. Finally, I covered the cavity of
the nest with a dry leaf. This she did not remove with her beak,
but thrust her head deftly beneath it and shook it off upon the ground.
Many of her sympathizing neighbors, attracted by her alarm note,
came and had a peep at the intruder and then flew away, but the male
bird did not appear upon the scene. The final history of this nest I
am unable to give, as I did not again visit it till late in the season,
when, of course, it was empty.
Years pass without my finding a brown-thrasher's nest; it is not a nest
you are likely to stumble upon in your walk; it is hidden as a miser
hides his gold, and watched as jealously. The male pours out his rich
and triumphant song from the tallest tree he can find, and fairly
challenges you to come and look for his treasures in his vicinity.
But you will not find them if you go. The nest is somewhere on the
outer circle of his song; he is never so imprudent as to take up his
stand very near it. The artists who draw those cosy little pictures of
a brooding mother-bird with the male perched but a yard away in full
song, do not copy from nature. The thrasher's nest I found thirty or
forty rods from the point where the male was wont to indulge in his
brilliant recitative. It was in an open field under a low
ground-juniper. My dog disturbed the sitting bird as I was passing
near. The nest could be seen only by lifting up and parting away
the branches. All the arts of concealment had been carefully studied.
It was the last place you would think of looking, and, if you did look,
nothing was visible but the dense green circle of the low-spreading
juniper. When you approached, the bird would keep her place till you
had begun to stir the branches, when she would start out, and,
just skimming the ground, make a bright brown line to the near fence
and bushes. I confidently expected that this nest would escape
molestation, but it did not. Its discovery by myself and dog probably
opened the door for ill luck, as one day, not long afterward, when I
peeped in upon it, it was empty. The proud song of the male had ceased
from his accustomed tree, and the pair were seen no more in that
The phoebe-bird is a wise architect, and perhaps enjoys as great an
immunity from danger, both in its person and its nest, as any other
bird. Its modest, ashen-gray suit is the color of the rocks where it
builds, and the moss of which it makes such free use gives to its nest
the look of a natural growth or accretion. But when it comes into the
barn or under the shed to build, as it so frequently does, the moss is
rather out of place. Doubtless in time the bird will take the hint,
and when she builds in such places will leave the moss out. I noted
but two nests, the summer I am speaking of: one, in a barn, failed of
issue, on account of the rats, I suspect, though the little owl may
have been the depredator; the other, in the woods, sent forth three
young. This latter nest was most charmingly and ingeniously placed.
I discovered it while in quest of pond-lilies, in a long, deep level
stretch of water in the woods. A large tree had blown over at the edge
of the water, and its dense mass of up-turned roots, with the black,
peaty soil filling the interstices, was like the fragment of a wall
several feet high, rising from the edge of the languid current. In a
niche in this earthy wall, and visible and accessible only from the
water, a phoebe had built her nest, and reared her brood. I paddled my
boat up and came alongside prepared to take the family aboard.
The young, nearly ready to fly, were quite undisturbed by my presence,
having probably been assured that no danger need be apprehended from
that side. It was not a likely place for minks, or they would not have
been so secure.
I noted but one nest of the wood pewee, and that, too, like so many
other nests, failed of issue. It was saddled upon a small dry limb of
a plane-tree that stood by the roadside, about forty feet from the
ground. Every day for nearly a week, as I passed by I saw the sitting
bird upon the nest. Then one morning she was not in her place, and on
examination the nest proved to be empty--robbed, I had no doubt, by the
red squirrels, as they were very abundant in its vicinity, and appeared
to make a clean sweep of every nest. The wood pewee builds an
exquisite nest, shaped and finished as if cast in a mould. It is
modeled without and within with equal neatness and art, like the nest
of the humming-bird and the little gray gnat-catcher. The material is
much more refractory than that used by either of these birds, being,
in the present case, dry, fine cedar twigs; but these were bound into
a shape as rounded and compact as could be moulded out of the most
plastic material. Indeed, the nest of this bird looks precisely like
a large, lichen-covered, cup-shaped excrescence of the limb upon which
it is placed. And the bird, while sitting, seems entirely at ease.
Most birds seem to make very hard work of incubation. It is a kind of
martyrdom which appears to tax all their powers of endurance.
They have such a fixed, rigid, predetermined look, pressed down into
the nest and as motionless as if made of cast-iron. But the wood pewee
is an exception. She is largely visible above the rim of the nest.
Her attitude is easy and graceful; she moves her head this way and
that, and seems to take note of whatever goes on about her; and if her
neighbor were to drop in for a little social chat, she could doubtless
do her part. In fact, she makes light and easy work of what, to most
other birds, is such a serious and engrossing matter. If it does not
look like play with her, it at least looks like leisure and quiet
There is no nest-builder that suffers more from crows and squirrels and
other enemies than the wood-thrush. It builds as openly and
unsuspiciously as if it thought the whole world as honest as itself.
Its favorite place is the fork of a sapling, eight or ten feet from the
ground, where it falls an easy prey to every nest-robber that comes
prowling through the woods and groves. It is not a bird that skulks
and hides, like the cat-bird, the brown-thrasher, the chat, or the
cheewink, and its nest is not concealed with the same art as theirs.
Our thrushes are all frank, open-mannered birds; but the veery and the
hermit build upon the ground, where they at least escape the crows,
owls, and jays, and stand a better chance to be overlooked, by the
red squirrel and weasel also; while the robin seeks the protection of
dwellings and out-buildings. For years I have not known the nest of a
wood-thrush to succeed. During the season referred to I observed but
two, both apparently a second attempt, as the season was well advanced,
and both failures. In one case, the nest was placed in a branch that
an apple tree, standing near a dwelling, held out over the highway.
The structure was barely ten feet above the middle of the road,
and would just escape a passing load of hay. It was made conspicuous
by the use of a large fragment of newspaper in its foundation--an
unsafe material to build upon in most cases. Whatever else the press
may guard, this particular newspaper did not guard this nest from harm.
It saw the egg and probably the chick, but not the fledgeling.
A murderous deed was committed above the public highway, but whether in
the open day or under cover of darkness I have no means of knowing.
The frisky red squirrel was doubtless the culprit. The other nest was
in a maple sapling, within a few yards of the little rustic
summer-house already referred to. The first attempt of the season,
I suspect, had failed in a more secluded place under the hill; so the
pair had come up nearer the house for protection. The male sang in the
trees near by for several days before I chanced to see the nest.
The very morning, I think, it was finished, I saw a red squirrel
exploring a tree but a few yards away; he probably knew what the
singing meant as well as I did. I did not see the inside of the nest,
for it was almost instantly deserted, the female having probably laid
a single egg, which the squirrel had devoured.
If I were a bird, in building my nest I should follow the example of
the bobolink, placing it in the midst of a broad meadow, where there
was no spear of grass, or flower or growth unlike another to mark its
site. I judge that the bobolink escapes the dangers to which I have
adverted as few or no other birds do. Unless the mowers come along at
an earlier date than she has anticipated, that is, before July lst,
or a skunk goes nosing through the grass, which is unusual, she is as
safe as bird well can be in the great open of nature. She selects the
most monotonous and uniform place she can find amid the daisies or the
timothy and clover, and places her simple structure upon the ground in
the midst of it. There is no concealment, except as the great conceals
the little, as the desert conceals the pebble, as the myriad conceals
the unit. You may find the nest once, if your course chances to lead
you across it and your eye is quick enough to note the silent brown
bird as she darts quickly away; but step three paces in the wrong
direction, and your search will probably be fruitless. My friend and I
found a nest by accident one day, and then lost it again one minute
afterward. I moved away a few yards to be sure of the mother-bird,
charging my friend not to stir from his tracks. When I returned,
he had moved two paces, he said (he had really moved four), and we
spent a half hour stooping over the daisies and the buttercups, looking
for the lost clew. We grew desperate, and fairly felt the ground all
over with our hands, but without avail. I marked the spot with a bush,
and came the next day, and with the bush as a centre, moved about it in
slowly increasing circles, covering, I thought, nearly every inch of
ground with my feet, and laying hold of it with all the visual power
that I could command, till my patience was exhausted, and I gave up,
baffled. I began to doubt the ability of the parent birds themselves
to find it, and so secreted myself and watched. After much delay,
the male bird appeared with food in his beak, and satisfying himself
that the coast was clear, dropped into the grass which I had trodden
down in my search. Fastening my eye upon a particular meadow-lily,
I walked straight to the spot, bent down, and gazed long and intently
into the grass. Finally my eye separated the nest and its young from
its surroundings. My foot had barely missed them in my search, but by
how much they had escaped my eye I could not tell. Probably not by
distance at all, but simply by unrecognition. They were virtually
invisible. The dark gray and yellowish brown dry grass and stubble of
the meadow-bottom were exactly copied in the color of the half-fledged
young. More than that, they hugged the nest so closely and formed such
a compact mass, that though there were five of them, they preserved the
unit of expression,--no single head or form was defined; they were one,
and that one was without shape or color, and not separable, except by
closest scrutiny, from the one of the meadow-bottom. That nest
prospered, as bobolinks' nests doubtless generally do;
for, notwithstanding the enormous slaughter of the birds during their
fall migrations by Southern sportsmen, the bobolink appears to hold its
own, and its music does not diminish in our Northern meadows.
Birds with whom the struggle for life is the sharpest seem to be more
prolific than those whose nest and young are exposed to fewer dangers.
The robin, the sparrow, the pewee, etc., will rear, or make the attempt
to rear, two and sometimes three broods in a season; but the bobolink,
the oriole, the kingbird, the goldfinch, the cedar-bird, the birds of
prey, and the woodpeckers, that build in safe retreats, in the trunks
of trees, have usually but a single brood. If the boblink reared two
broods, our meadows would swarm with them.
I noted three nests of the cedar-bird in August in a single orchard,
all productive, but all with one or more unfruitful eggs in them.
The cedar-bird is the most silent of our birds having but a single fine
note, so far as I have observed, but its manners are very expressive
at times. No bird known to me is capable of expressing so much silent
alarm while on the nest as this bird. As you ascend the tree and draw
near it, it depresses its plumage and crest, stretches up its neck,
and becomes the very picture of fear. Other birds, under like
circumstances, hardly change their expression at all till they launch
into the air, when by their voice they express anger rather than alarm.
I have referred to the red squirrel as a destroyer of the eggs and
young of birds. I think the mischief it does in this respect can
hardly be over estimated. Nearly all birds look upon it as their
enemy, and attack and annoy it when it appears near their breeding
haunts. Thus, I have seen the pewee, the cuckoo, the robin, and
the wood-thrush pursuing it with angry voice and gestures. A friend of
mine saw a pair of robins attack one in the top of a tall tree so
vigorously that they caused it to lose its hold, when it fell to the
ground, and was so stunned by the blow as to allow him to pick it up.
If you wish the birds to breed and thrive in your orchard and groves,
kill every red squirrel that infests the place; kill every weasel also.
The weasel is a subtle and arch enemy of the birds. It climbs trees
and explores them with great ease and nimbleness. I have seen it do so
on several occasions. One day my attention was arrested by the angry
notes of a pair of brown-thrashers that were flitting from bush to bush
along an old stone row in a remote field. Presently I saw what it was
that excited them--three large red weasels, or ermines coming along the
stone wall, and leisurely and half playfully exploring every tree that
stood near it. They had probably robbed the thrashers. They would go
up the trees with great ease, and glide serpent-like out upon the main
branches. When they descended the tree they were unable to come
straight down, like a squirrel, but went around it spirally.
How boldly they thrust their heads out of the wall, and eyed me and
sniffed me, as I drew near,--their round, thin ears, their prominent,
glistening, bead-like eyes, and the curving, snake-like motions of the
head and neck being very noticeable. They looked like blood-suckers
and egg-suckers. They suggested something extremely remorseless and
cruel. One could understand the alarm of the rats when they discover
one of these fearless, subtle, and circumventing creatures threading
their holes. To flee must be like trying to escape death itself.
I was one day standing in the woods upon a flat stone, in what at
certain seasons was the bed of a stream, when one of these weasels came
undulating along and ran under the stone upon which I was standing.
As I remained motionless, he thrust his wedge-shaped head, and turned
it back above the stone as if half in mind to seize my foot; then he
drew back, and presently went his way. These weasels often hunt in
packs like the British stoat. When I was a boy, my father one day
armed me with an old musket and sent me to shoot chipmunks around the
corn. While watching the squirrels, a troop of weasels tried to cross
a bar-way where I sat, and were so bent on doing it that I fired at
them, boy-like, simply to thwart their purpose. One of the weasels was
disabled by my shot, but the troop was not discouraged, and, after
making several feints to cross, one of them seized the wounded one and
bore it over, and the pack disappeared in the wall on the other side.
Let me conclude this chapter with two or three notes about this alert
enemy of the birds and the lesser animals, the weasel.
A farmer one day heard a queer growling sound in the grass;
on approaching the spot he saw two weasels contending over a mouse;
each had hold of the mouse pulling in opposite directions, and were so
absorbed in the struggle that the farmer cautiously put his hands down
and grabbed them both by the back of the neck. He put them in a cage,
and offered them bread and other food. This they refused to eat,
but in a few days one of them had eaten the other up, picking his bones
clean and leaving nothing but the skeleton.
The same farmer was one day in his cellar when two rats came out of a
hole near him in great haste, and ran up the cellar wall and along its
top till they came to a floor timber that stopped their progress,
when they turned at bay, and looked excitedly back along the course
they had come. In a moment a weasel, evidently in hot pursuit of them,
came out of the hole, and seeing the farmer, checked his course and
darted back. The rats had doubtless turned to give him fight,
and would probably have been a match for him.
The weasel seems to track its game by scent. A hunter of my
acquaintance was one day sitting in the woods, when he saw
a red squirrel run with great speed up a tree near him, and out
upon a long branch, from which he leaped to some rocks, and disappeared
beneath them. In a moment a weasel came in fu1l course upon his trail,
ran up the tree, then out along the branch, from the end of which he
leaped to the rocks as the squirrel did, and plunged beneath them.
Doubtless the squirrel fell a prey to him. The squirrel's best game
would have been to have kept to the higher tree-tops, where he could
easily have distanced the weasel. But beneath the rocks he stood a
very poor chance. I have often wondered what keeps such an animal as
the weasel in check, for weasels are quite rare. They never need go
hungry, for rats and squirrels and mice and birds are everywhere.
They probably do not fall a prey to any other animal, and very rarely
to man. But the circumstances or agencies that check the increase of
any species of animal are, as Darwin says, very obscure and but little
AN IDYL OF THE HONEY-BEE.
There is no creature with which man has surrounded himself that seems
so much like a product of civilization, so much like the result of
development on special lines and in special fields, as the honey-bee.
Indeed, a colony of bees, with their neatness and love of order, their
division of labor, their public spiritedness, their thrift, their
complex economies and their inordinate love of gain, seems as far
removed from a condition of rude nature as does a walled city or a
cathedral town. Our native bee, on the other hand, "the burly, dozing
humble-bee," affects one more like the rude, untutored savage. He has
learned nothing from experience. He lives from hand to mouth.
He luxuriates in time of plenty, and he starves in times of scarcity.
He lives in a rude nest or in a hole in the ground, and in small
communities; he builds a few deep cells or sacks in which he stores
a little honey and bee-bread for his young, but as a worker in wax he
is of the most primitive and awkward. The Indian regarded the
honey-bee as an ill-omen. She was the white man's fly. In fact she
was the epitome of the white man himself. She has the white man's
craftiness, his industry, his architectural skill, his neatness and
love of system, his foresight; and above all his eager, miserly habits.
The honeybee's great ambition is to be rich, to lay up great stores,
to possess the sweet of every flower that blooms. She is more than
provident. Enough will not satisfy her, she must have all she can get
by hook or by crook. She comes from the oldest country, Asia,
and thrives best in the most fertile and long-settled lands.
Yet the fact remains that the honey-bee is essentially a wild creature,
and never has been and cannot be thoroughly domesticated. Its proper
home is the woods, and thither every new swarm counts on going;
and thither many do go in spite of the care and watchfulness of the
bee-keeper. If the woods in any given locality are deficient in trees
with suitable cavities, the bees resort to all sorts of makeshifts;
they go into chimneys, into barns and outhouses, under stones, into
rocks, and so forth. Several chimneys in my locality with disused
flues are taken possession of by colonies of bees nearly every season.
One day, while bee-hunting, I developed a line that went toward a
farm-house where I had reason to believe no bees were kept. I followed
it up and questioned the farmer about his bees. He said he kept no
bees, but that a swarm had taken possession of his chimney, and another
had gone under the clapboards in the gable end of his house. He had
taken a large lot of honey out of both places the year before. Another
farmer told me that one day his family had seen a number of bees
examining a knot-hole in the side of his house; the next day as they
were sitting down to dinner their attention was attracted by a loud
humming noise, when they discovered a swarm of bees settling upon the
side of the house and pouring into the knot-hole. In subsequent years
other swarms came to the same place.
Apparently, every swarm of bees before it leaves the parent hive sends
out exploring parties to look up the future home. The woods and groves
are searched through and through, and no doubt the privacy of many a
squirrel and many a wood mouse is intruded upon. What cozy nooks and
retreats they do spy out, so much more attractive than the painted hive
in the garden, so much cooler in summer and so much warmer in winter!
The bee is in the main an honest citizen; she prefers legitimate to
illegitimate business; she is never an outlaw until her proper sources
of supply fail; she will not touch honey as long as honey-yielding
flowers can be found; she always prefers to go to the fountain-head,
and dislikes to take her sweets at second hand. But in the fall, after
the flowers have failed, she can be tempted. The bee-hunter takes
advantage of this fact; he betrays her with a little honey. He
wants to steal her stores, and he first encourages her to steal his,
then follows the thief home with her booty. This is the whole trick of
the bee-hunter. The bees never suspect his game, else by taking a
circuitous route they could easily baffle him. But the honey-bee has
absolutely no wit or cunning outside of her special gifts as a gatherer
and storer of honey. She is a simple-minded creature, and can be
imposed upon by any novice. Yet it is not every novice that can find
a bee-tree. The sportsman may track his game to its retreat by the aid
of his dog, but in hunting the honey-bee one must be his own dog, and
track his game through an element in which it leaves no trail. It is
a task for a sharp, quick eye, and may test the resources of the best
wood-craft. One autumn when I devoted much time to this pursuit, as
the best means of getting at nature and the open-air exhilaration,
my eye became so trained that bees were nearly as easy to it as birds.
I saw and heard bees wherever I went. One day, standing on a street
corner in a great city, I saw above the trucks and the traffic a line
of bees carrying off sweets from some grocery or confectionery shop.
One looks upon the woods with a new interest when he suspects they hold
a colony of bees. What a pleasing secret it is; a tree with a heart of
comb-honey, a decayed oak or maple with a bit of Sicily or Mount
Hymettus stowed away in its trunk or branches; secret chambers where
lies hidden the wealth of ten thousand little freebooters, great
nuggets and wedges of precious ore gathered with risk and labor from
every field and wood about.
But if you would know the delights of bee-hunting, and how many sweets
such a trip yields beside honey, come with me some bright, warm, late
September or early October day. It is the golden season of the year,
and any errand or pursuit that takes us abroad upon the hills or by the
painted woods and along the amber colored streams at such a time is
enough. So, with haversacks filled with grapes and peaches and apples
and a bottle of milk,--for we shall not be home to dinner,--and armed
with a compass, a hatchet, a pail, and a box with a piece of comb-honey
neatly fitted into it--any box the size of your hand with a lid will do
nearly as well as the elaborate and ingenious contrivance of the
regular bee-hunter--we sally forth. Our course at first lies along the
highway, under great chestnut-trees whose nuts are just dropping, then
through an orchard and across a little creek, thence gently rising
through a long series of cultivated fields toward some high, uplying
land, behind which rises a rugged wooded ridge or mountain, the most
sightly point in all this section. Behind this ridge for several miles
the country is wild, wooded, and rocky, and is no doubt the home of
many wild swarms of bees. What a gleeful uproar the robins,
cedar-birds, high-holes, and cow black-birds make amid the black
cherry-trees as we pass along. The raccoons, too, have been here after
black cherries, and we see their marks at various points. Several
crows are walking about a newly sowed wheat field we pass through,
and we pause to note their graceful movements and glossy coats. I have
seen no bird walk the ground with just the same air the crow does.
It is not exactly pride; there is no strut or swagger in it, though
perhaps just a little condescension; it is the contented, complaisant,
and self-possessed gait of a lord over his domains. All these acres
are mine, he says, and all these crops; men plow and sow for me, and I
stay here or go there, and find life sweet and good wherever I am.
The hawk looks awkward and out of place on the ground; the game birds
hurry and skulk, but the crow is at home and treads the earth as if
there were none to molest him or make him afraid.
The crows we have always with us, but it is not every day or every
season that one sees an eagle. Hence I must preserve the memory of one
I saw the last day I went bee-hunting. As I was laboring up the side
of a mountain at the head of a valley, the noble bird sprang from the
top of a dry tree above me and came sailing directly over my head.
I saw him bend his eye down upon me, and I could hear the low hum of
his plumage, as if the web off every quill in his great wings vibrated
in his strong, level flight. I watched him as long as my eye could
hold him. When he was fairly clear of the mountain he began that
sweeping spiral movement in which he climbs the sky. Up and up he went
without once breaking his majestic poise till be appeared to sight some
far-off alien geography, when he bent his course thitherward and
gradually vanished in the blue depths. The eagle is a bird of large
ideas, he embraces long distances; the continent is his home. I never
look upon one without emotion; I follow him with my eye as long as
I can. I think of Canada, of the Great Lakes, of the Rocky Mountains,
of the wild and sounding sea-coast. The waters are his, and the woods
and the inaccessible cliffs. He pierces behind the veil of the storm,
and his joy is height and depth and vast spaces.
We go out of our way to touch at a spring run in the edge of the woods,
and are lucky to find a single scarlet lobelia lingering there.
It seems almost to light up the gloom with its intense bit of color.
Beside a ditch in a field beyond we find the great blue lobelia
(Lobelia syphilitica), and near it amid the weeds and wild grasses and
purple asters the most beautiful of our fall flowers, the fringed
gentian. What a rare and delicate, almost aristocratic look the
gentian has amid its coarse, unkempt surroundings. It does not lure
the bee, but it lures and holds every passing human eye. If we strike
through the corner of yonder woods, where the ground is moistened by
hidden springs and where there is a little opening amid the trees,
we shall find the closed gentian, a rare flower in this locality.
I had walked this way many times before I chanced upon its retreat;
and then I was following a line of bees. I lost the bees but I got the
gentians. How curiously this flower looks, with its deep blue petals
folded together so tightly--a bud and yet a blossom. It is the nun
among our wild flowers, a form closely veiled and cloaked.
The buccaneer bumble-bee sometimes tries to rifle it of its sweets.
I have seen the blossom with the bee entombed in it. He had forced his
way into the virgin corolla as if determined to know its secret, but he
had never returned with the knowledge he had gained.
After a refreshing walk of a couple of miles we reach a point where we
will make our first trial--a high stone wall that runs parallel with
the wooded ridge referred to, and separated from it by a broad field.
There are bees at work there on that goldenrod, and it requires but
little maneuvering to sweep one into our box. Almost any other
creature rudely and suddenly arrested in its career and clapped into
a cage in this way would show great confusion and alarm. The bee is
alarmed for a moment, but the bee has a passion stronger than its love
of life or fear of death, namely, desire for honey, not simply to eat,
but to carry home as booty. "Such rage of honey in their bosom beats,"
says Virgil. It is quick to catch the scent of honey in the box, and
as quick to fall to filling itself. We now set the box down upon the
wall and gently remove the cover. The bee is head and shoulders in one
of the half-filled cells, and is oblivious to everything else about it.
Come rack, come ruin, it will die at work. We step back a few paces,
and sit down upon the ground so as to bring the box against the blue
sky as a background. In two or three minutes the bee is seen rising
slowly and heavily from the box. It seems loath to leave so much honey
behind and it marks the place well. It mounts aloft in a rapidly
increasing spiral, surveying the near and minute objects first,
then the larger and more distant, till having circled about the spot
five or six times and taken all its bearings it darts away for home.
It is a good eye that holds fast to the bee till it is fairly off.
Sometimes one's head will swim following it, and often one's eyes are
put out by the sun. This bee gradually drifts down the hill, then
strikes away toward a farm-house half a mile away, where I know bees
are kept. Then we try another and another, and the third bee, much to
our satisfaction, goes straight toward the woods. We could see the
brown speck against the darker background for many yards. The regular
bee-hunter professes to be able to tell a wild bee from a tame one by
the color, the former, he says, being lighter. But there is no
difference; they are both alike in color and in manner. Young bees are
lighter than old, and that is all there is of it. If a bee lived many
years in the woods it would doubtless come to have some distinguishing
marks, but the life of a bee is only a few months at the farthest,
and no change is wrought in this brief time.
Our bees are all soon back, and more with them, for we have touched
the box here and there with the cork of a bottle of anise oil, and this
fragrant and pungent oil will attract bees half a mile or more. When
no flowers can be found, this is the quickest way to obtain a bee.
It is a singular fact that when the bee first finds the hunter's box
its first feeling is one of anger; it is as mad as a hornet; its tone
changes, it sounds its shrill war trumpet and darts to and fro,
and gives vent to its rage and indignation in no uncertain manner.
It seems to scent foul play at once. It says, "Here is robbery;
here is the spoil of some hive, may be my own," and its blood is up.
But its ruling passion soon comes to the surface, its avarice gets the
better of its indignation, and it seems to say, "Well, I had better
take possession of this and carry it home." So after many feints and
approaches and dartings off with a loud angry hum as if it would none
of it, the bee settles down and fills itself.
It does not entirely cool off and get soberly to work till it has made
two or three trips home with its booty. When other bees come, even if
all from the same swarm, they quarrel and dispute over the box,
and clip and dart at each other like bantam cocks. Apparently the ill
feeling which the sight of the honey awakens is not one of jealousy or
rivalry, but wrath.
A bee will usually make three or four trips from the hunter's box
before it brings back a companion. I suspect the bee does not tell
its fellows what it has found, but that they smell out the secret;
it doubtless bears some evidence with it upon its feet or proboscis
that it has been upon honey-comb and not upon flowers, and its
companions take the hint and follow, arriving always many seconds
behind. Then the quantity and quality of the booty would also betray
it. No doubt, also, there are plenty of gossips about a hive that
note and tell everything. "Oh, did you see that? Peggy Mel came in
a few moments ago in great haste, and one of the up-stairs packers says
she was loaded till she groaned with apple-blossom honey which she
deposited, and then rushed off again like mad. Apple-blossom honey
in October! Fee, fi, fo, fum! I smell something! Let's after."
In about half an hour we have three well-defined lines of bees
established --two to farm-houses and one to the woods, and our box is
being rapidly depleted of its honey. About every fourth bee goes to
the woods, and now that they have learned the way thoroughly they do
not make the long preliminary whirl above the box, but start directly
from it. The woods are rough and dense and the hill steep, and we do
not like to follow the line of bees until we have tried at least to
settle the problem as to the distance they go into the woods-whether
the tree is on this side of the ridge or in the depth of the forest on
the other side. So we shut up the box when it is full of bees and
carry it about three hundred yards along the wall from which we are
operating. When liberated, the bees, as they always will in such
cases, go off in the same directions they have been going; they do not
seem to know that they have been moved. But other bees have followed
our scent, and it is not many minutes before a second line to the woods
is established. This is called cross-lining the bees. The new line
makes a sharp angle with the other line, and we know at once that the
tree is only a few rods into the woods. The two lines we have
established form two sides of a triangle of which the wall is the base;
at the apex of the triangle, or where the two lines meet in the woods,
we are sure to find the tree. We quickly follow up these lines,
and where they cross each other on the side of the hill we scan every
tree closely. I pause at the foot of an oak and examine a hole near
the root; now the bees are in this tree and their entrance is on the
upper side near the ground, not two feet from the hole I peer into,
and yet so quiet and secret is their going and coming that I fail to
discover them and pass on up the hill. Failing in this direction,
I return to the oak again, and then perceive the bees going out in
a small crack in the tree. The bees do not know they are found out
and that the game is in our hands, and are as oblivious of our presence
as if we were ants or crickets. The indications are that the swarm is
a small one, and the store of honey trifling. In "taking up" a
bee-tree it is usual first to kill or stupefy the bees with the fumes
of burning sulfur or with tobacco smoke. But this course is
impracticable on the present occasion, so we boldly and ruthlessly
assault the tree with an ax we have procured. At the first blow
the bees set up a loud buzzing, but we have no mercy, and the side of
the cavity is soon cut away and the interior with its white-yellow mass
of comb-honey is exposed, and not a bee strikes a blow in defense of
its all. This may seem singular, but it has nearly always been my
experience. When a swarm of bees are thus rudely assaulted with an
ax, they evidently think the end of the world has come, and, like true
misers as they are, each one seizes as much of the treasure as it can
hold; in other words they all fall to and gorge themselves with honey,
and calmly await the issue. When in this condition they make no
defense and will not sting unless taken hold of. In fact they are as
harmless as flies. Bees are always to be managed with boldness and
Any half-way measures, any timid poking about, any feeble attempts to
reach their honey, are sure to be quickly resented. The popular notion
that bees have a special antipathy toward certain persons and a liking
for certain others has only this fact at the bottom of it; they will
sting a person who is afraid of them and goes skulking and dodging
about, and they will not sting a person who faces them boldly and has
no dread of them. They are like dogs. The way to disarm a vicious dog
is to show him you do not fear him; it is his turn to be afraid then.
I never had any dread of bees and am seldom stung by them. I have
climbed up into a large chestnut that contained a swarm in one of its
cavities and chopped them out with an ax, being obliged at times to
pause and brush the bewildered bees from my hands and face, and not
been stung once. I have chopped a swarm out of an apple-tree in June
and taken out the cards of honey and arranged them in a hive, and then
dipped out the bees with a dipper, and taken the whole home with me in
pretty good condition, with scarcely any opposition on the part of the
bees. In reaching your hand into the cavity to detach and remove the
comb you are pretty sure to get stung, for when you touch the
"business end" of a bee, it will sting even though its head be off.
But the bee carries the antidote to its own poison. The best remedy
for bee sting is honey, and when your hands are besmeared with honey,
as they are sure to be on such occasions, the wound is scarcely more
painful than the prick of a pin. Assault your bee-tree, then, boldly
with your ax, and you will find that when the honey is exposed every
bee has surrendered and the whole swarm is cowering in helpless
bewilderment and terror. Our tree yields only a few pounds of honey,
not enough to have lasted the swarm till January, but no matter;
we have the less burden to carry.
In the afternoon we go nearly half a mile farther along the ridge to a
cornfield that lies immediately in front of the highest point of the
mountain. The view is superb; the ripe autumn landscape rolls away to
the east, cut through by the great placid river; in the extreme north
the wall of the Catskills stands out clear and strong, while in the
south the mountains of the Highlands bound the view. The day is warm
and the bees are very busy there in that neglected corner of the field,
rich in asters, flea-bane, and golden-rod. The corn has been cut,
and upon a stout, but a few rods from the woods, which here drop
quickly down from the precipitous heights, we set up our bee-box,
touched again with the pungent oil. In a few moments a bee has found
it; she comes up to leeward, following the scent. On leaving the box
she goes straight toward the woods. More bees quickly come, and it is
not long before the line is well established. Now we have recourse to
the same tactics we employed before, and move along the ridge to
another field to get our cross line. But the bees still go in almost
the same direction they did from the corn stout. The tree is then
either on the top of the mountain or on the other or west side of it.
We hesitate to make the plunge into the woods and seek to scale those
precipices, for the eye can plainly see what is before us. As the
afternoon sun gets lower the bees are seen with wonderful distinctness.
They fly toward and under the sun and are in a strong light, while the
near woods which form the background are in deep shadow. They look
like large luminous motes. Their swiftly vibrating, transparent wings
surround their bodies with a shining nimbus that makes them visible for
a long distance. They seem magnified many times. We see them bridge
the little gulf between us and the woods, then rise up over the
tree-tops with their burdens, swerving neither to the right hand nor to
the left. It is almost pathetic to see them labor so, climbing the
mountain and unwittingly guiding us to their treasures. When the sun
gets down so that his direction corresponds exactly with the course of
the bees, we make the plunge. It proves even harder climbing than we
had anticipated; the mountain is faced by a broken and irregular wall
of rock, up which we pull ourselves slowly and cautiously by main
strength. In half an hour, the perspiration streaming from every pore,
we reach the summit. The trees here are all small, a second growth,
and we are soon convinced the bees are not here. Then down we go on
the other side, clambering down the rocky stairways till we reach quite
a broad plateau that forms something like the shoulder of the mountain.
On the brink of this there are many large hemlocks, and we scan them
closely and rap upon them with our ax. But not a bee is seen or heard;
we do not seem as near the tree as we were in the fields below; yet if
some divinity would only whisper the fact to us we are within a few
rods of the coveted prize, which is not in one of the large hemlocks or
oaks that absorb our attention, but in an old stub or stump not six
feet high, and which we have seen and passed several times without
giving it a thought. We go farther down the mountain and beat about to
the right and left and get entangled in brush and arrested by
precipices, and finally as the day is nearly spent, give up the search
and leave the woods quite baffled, but resolved to return on the
morrow. The next day we come back and commence operations in an
opening in the woods well down on the side of the mountain, where we
gave up the search. Our box is soon swarming with the eager bees,
and they go back toward the summit we have passed. We follow back and
establish a new line where the ground will permit; then another and
another, and yet the riddle is not solved. One time we are south of
them, then north, then the bees get up through the trees and we cannot
tell where they go. But after much searching, and after the mystery
seems rather to deepen than to clear up, we chance to pause beside the
old stump. A bee comes out of a small opening, like that made by ants
in decayed wood, rubs its eyes and examines its antennae as bees always
do before leaving their hive, then takes flight. At the same instant
several bees come by us loaded with our honey and settle home with that
peculiar low complacent buzz of the well-filled insect. Here then is
our idyl, our bit of Virgil and Theocritus, in a decayed stump of a
hemlock tree. We could tear it open with our hands, and a bear would
find it an easy prize, and a rich one too, for we take from it fifty
pounds of excellent honey. The bees have been here many years,
and have of course sent out swarm after swarm into the wilds. They
have protected themselves against the weather and strengthened their
shaky habitation by a copious use of wax.
When a bee-tree is thus "taken up" in the middle of the day, of course
a good many bees are away from home and have not heard the news.
When they return and find the ground flowing with honey, and piles of
bleeding combs lying about, they apparently do not recognize the place,
and their first instinct is to fall to and fill themselves; this done,
their next thought is to carry it home, so they rise up slowly through
the branches of the trees till they have attained an altitude that
enables them to survey the scene, when they seem to say, "Why, this is
home," and down they come again; beholding the wreck and ruins once
more they still think there is some mistake, and get up a second or
a third time and then drop back pitifully as before. It is the most
pathetic sight of all, the surviving and bewildered bees struggling
to save a few drops of their wasted treasures.
Presently, if there is another swarm in the woods, robber-bees appear.
You may know them by their saucy, chiding, devil-may-care hum. It is
an ill wind that blows nobody good, and they make the most of the
misfortune of their neighbors; and thereby pave the way for their own
ruin. The hunter marks their course and the next day looks them up.
On this occasion the day was hot and the honey very fragrant, and a
line of bees was soon established S. S. W. Though there was much
refuse honey in the old stub, and though little golden rills trickled
down the hill from it, and the near branches and saplings were
besmeared with it where we wiped our murderous hands, yet not a drop
was wasted. It was a feast to which not only honey-bees came, but
bumble-bees, wasps, hornets, flies, ants. The bumble-bees, which at
this season are hungry vagrants with no fixed place of abode, would
gorge themselves, then creep beneath the bits of empty comb or
fragments of bark and pass the night, and renew the feast next day.
The bumble-bee is an insect of which the bee-hunter sees much.
There are all sorts and sizes of them. They are dull and clumsy
compared with the honey-bee. Attracted in the fields by the
bee-hunter's box, they will come up the wind on the scent and blunder
into it in the most stupid, lubberly fashion.
The honey-bee that licked up our leavings on the old stub belonged to
a swarm, as it proved, about half a mile farther down the ridge,
and a few days afterward fate overtook them, and their stores in turn
became the prey of another swarm in the vicinity, which also tempted
Providence and were overwhelmed. The first mentioned swarm I had lined
from several points, and was following up the clew over rocks and
through gulleys, when I came to where a large hemlock had been felled
a few years before and a swarm taken from a cavity near the top of it;
fragments of the old comb were yet to be seen. A few yards away stood
another short, squatty hemlock, and I said my bees ought to be there.
As I paused near it I noticed where the tree had been wounded with an
ax a couple of feet from the ground many years before. The wound had
partially grown over, but there was an opening there that I did not see
at the first glance. I was about to pass on when a bee passed me
making that peculiar shrill, discordant hum that a bee makes when
besmeared with honey. I saw it alight in the partially closed wound
and crawl home; then came others and others, little bands and squads of
them heavily freighted with honey from the box. The tree was about
twenty inches through and hollow at the butt, or from the ax mark down.
This space the bees had completely filled with honey. With an ax we
cut away the outer ring of live wood and exposed the treasure. Despite
the utmost care, we wounded the comb so that little rills of the golden
liquid issued from the root of the tree and trickled down the hill.
The other bee-tree in the vicinity, to which I have referred, we found
one warm November day in less than half an hour after entering the
woods. It also was a hemlock, that stood in a niche in a wall of
hoary, moss-covered rocks thirty feet high. The tree hardly reached to
the top of the precipice. The bees entered a small hole at the root,
which was seven or eight feet from the ground. The position was a
striking one. Never did apiary have a finer outlook or more rugged
surroundings. A black, wood-embraced lake lay at our feet; the long
panorama of the Catskills filled the far distance, and the more broken
outlines of the Shawangunk range filled the rear. On every hand were
precipices and a wild confusion of rocks and trees.
The cavity occupied by the bees was about three feet and a half long
and eight or ten inches in diameter. With an ax we cut away one side
of the tree and laid bare its curiously wrought heart of honey. It was
a most pleasing sight. What winding and devious ways the bees had
through their palace! What great masses and blocks of snow-white comb
there were! Where it was sealed up, presenting that slightly dented,
uneven surface, it looked like some precious ore. When we carried
a large pail full of it out of the woods, it seemed still more like
Your native bee-hunter predicates the distance of the tree by the time
the bee occupies in making its first trip. But this is no certain
guide. You are always safe in calculating that the tree is inside of a
mile, and you need not as a rule look for your bee's return under ten
minutes. One day I picked up a bee in an opening in the woods and gave
it honey, and it made three trips to my box with an interval of about
twelve minutes between them; it returned alone each time; the tree,
which I afterward found, was about half a mile distant.
In lining bees through the woods, the tactics of the hunter are to
pause every twenty or thirty rods, lop away the branches or cut down
the trees, and set the bees to work again. If they still go forward,
he goes forward also and repeats his observations till the tree is
found or till the bees turn and come back upon the trail. Then he
knows be has passed the tree, and he retraces his steps to a convenient
distance and tries again, and thus quickly reduces the space to be
looked over till the swarm is traced home. On one occasion, in a wild
rocky wood, where the surface alternated between deep gulfs and chasms
filled with thick, heavy growths of timber and sharp, precipitous,
rocky ridges like a tempest tossed sea, I carried my bees directly
under their tree, and set them to work from a high, exposed ledge of
rocks not thirty feet distant. One would have expected them under such
circumstances to have gone straight home, as there were but few
branches intervening, but they did not; they labored up through the
trees and attained an altitude above the woods as if they had miles to
travel, and thus baffled me for hours. Bees will always do this.
They are acquainted with the woods only from the top side, and from the
air above they recognize home only by land-marks here, and in every
instance they rise aloft to take their bearings. Think how familiar to
them the topography of the forest summits must be-an umbrageous sea or
plain where every mask and point is known.
Another curious fact is that generally you will get track of a bee-tree
sooner when you are half a mile from it than when you are only a few
yards. Bees, like us human insects, have little faith in the near at
hand; they expect to make their fortune in a distant field, they are
lured by the remote and the difficult, and hence overlook the flower
and the sweet at their very door. On several occasions I have
unwittingly set my box within a few paces of a bee-tree and waited long
for bees without getting them, when, on removing to a distant field or
opening in the woods I have got a clew at once.
I have a theory that when bees leave the hive, unless there is some
special attraction in some other direction, they generally go against
the wind. They would thus have the wind with them when they returned
home heavily laden, and with these little navigators the difference is
an important one. With a full cargo, a stiff head-wind is a great
hindrance, but fresh and empty-handed they can face it with more ease.
Virgil says bees bear gravel stones as ballast, but their only ballast
is their honey bag. Hence, when I go bee-hunting, I prefer to get to
windward of the woods in which the swarm is supposed to have taken
Bees, like the milkman, like to be near a spring. They do water their
honey, especially in a dry time. The liquid is then of course thicker
and sweeter, and will bear diluting. Hence, old bee-hunters look for
bee-trees along creeks and near spring runs in the woods. I once found
a tree a long distance from any water, and the honey had a peculiar
bitter flavor imparted to it, I was convinced, by rainwater sucked from
the decayed and spongy hemlock tree, in which the swarm was found.
In cutting into the tree, the north side of it was found to be
saturated with water like a spring, which ran out in big drops, and had
a bitter flavor. The bees had thus found a spring or a cistern in
their own house.
Bees are exposed to many hardships and many dangers. Winds and storms
prove as disastrous to them as to other navigators. Black spiders lie
in wait for them as do brigands for travelers. One day as I was
looking for a bee amid some golden-rod, I spied one partly concealed
under a leaf. Its baskets were full of pollen, and it did not move.
On lifting up the leaf I discovered that a hairy spider was ambushed
there and had the bee by the throat. The vampire was evidently afraid
of the bee's sting, and was holding it by the throat till quite sure of
its death. Virgil speaks of the painted lizard, perhaps a species of
salamander, as an enemy of the honey-bee. We have no lizard that
destroys the bee; but our tree-toad, ambushed among the apple and
cherry blossoms, snaps them up wholesale. Quick as lightning that
subtle but clammy tongue darts forth, and the unsuspecting bee is gone.
Virgil also accuses the titmouse and the woodpecker of preying upon the
bees, and our kingbird has been charged with the like crime, but the
latter devours only the drones. The workers are either too small and
quick for it, or else it dreads their sting.
Virgil, by the way, had little more than a child's knowledge of the
honey-bee. There is little fact and much fable in his fourth Georgic.
If he had ever kept bees himself, or even visited an apiary, it is hard
to see how he could have believed that the bee in its flight abroad
carried a gravel stone for ballast:--
"And as when empty barks on billows float,
With Sandy ballast sailors trim the boat;
So bees bear gravel stones, whose poising weight
Steers through the whistling winds their steady flight;"
or that when two colonies made war upon each other they issued forth
from their hives led by their kings and fought in the air, strewing the
ground with the dead and dying:--
"Hard hailstones lie not thicker on the plain,
Nor shaken oaks such show'rs of acorns rain."
It is quite certain he had never been bee-hunting. If he had, we
should have had a fifth Georgic. Yet he seems to have known that bees
sometimes escaped to the woods:--
"Nor bees are lodged in hives alone, but found
In chambers of their own beneath the ground:
Their vaulted roofs are hung in pumices,
And in the rotten trunks of hollow trees."
Wild honey is as near like tame as wild bees are like their brothers in
hive. The only difference is that wild honey is flavored with your
adventure, which makes it a little more delectable than the domestic
THE PASTORAL BEES
The honey-bee goes forth from the hive in spring like the dove from
Noah's ark, and it is not till after many days that she brings back the
olive leaf, which in this case is a pellet of golden pollen upon each
hip, usually obtained from the alder or the swamp willow. In a country
where maple sugar is made, the bees get their first taste of sweet from
the sap as it flows from the spiles, or as it dries and is condensed
upon the sides of the buckets. They will sometimes, in their
eagerness, come about the boiling place and be overwhelmed by the steam
and the smoke. But bees appear to be more eager for bread in the
spring than for honey; their supply of this article, perhaps, does not
keep as well as their stores of the latter, hence fresh bread, in the
shape of new pollen, is diligently sought for. My bees get their first
supplies from the catkins of the willows. How quickly they find them
out. If but one catkin opens anywhere within range, a bee is on hand
that very hour to rifle it, and it is a most pleasing experience to
stand near the hive some mild April day and see them come pouring in
with their little baskets packed with this first fruitage of the
spring. They will have new bread now; they have been to mill in good
earnest; see their dusty coats, and the golden grist they bring home
When a bee brings pollen into the hive, he advances to the cell in
which it is to be deposited and kicks it off as one might his overalls
or rubber boots, making one foot help the other; then he walks off
without ever looking behind him; another bee, one of the indoor hands,
comes along and rams it down with his head and packs it into the cell
as the dairymaid packs butter into a firkin.
The first spring wild-flowers, whose shy faces among the dry leaves and
rocks are so welcome, yield no honey. The anemone, the hepatica,
the bloodroot, the arbutus, the numerous violets, the spring beauty,
the corydalis, etc., woo lovers of nature, but do not woo the
honey-loving bee. It requires more sun and warmth to develop the
saccharine element, and the beauty of these pale striplings of the
woods and groves is their sole and sufficient excuse for being.
The arbutus, lying low and keeping green all winter, attains to
perfume, but not to honey.
The first honey is perhaps obtained from the flowers of the red maple
and the golden willow. The latter sends forth a wild, delicious
perfume. The sugar maple blooms a little later, and from its silken
tassels a rich nectar is gathered. My bees will not label these
different varieties for me as I really wish they would. Honey from the
maples, a tree so clean and wholesome, and full of such virtues every
way, would be something to put one's tongue to. Or that from the
blossoms of the apple, the peach, the cherry, the quince, the currant,
--one would like a card of each of these varieties to note their
peculiar qualities. The apple-blossom is very important to the bees.
A single swarm has been known to gain twenty pounds in weight during
its continuance. Bees love the ripened fruit, too, and in August and
September will suck themselves tipsy upon varieties such as
The interval between the blooming of the fruit-trees and that of the
clover and the raspberry is bridged over in many localities by the
honey locust. What a delightful summer murmur these trees send forth
at this season. I know nothing about the quality of the honey, but it
ought to keep well. But when the red raspberry blooms, the fountains
of plenty are unsealed indeed; what a commotion about the hives then,
especially in localities where it is extensively cultivated, as in
places along the Hudson. The delicate white clover, which begins to
bloom about the same time, is neglected; even honey itself is passed by
for this modest colorless, all but odorless flower. A field of these
berries in June sends forth a continuous murmur like that of an
enormous hive. The honey is not so white as that obtained from clover
but it is easier gathered; it is in shallow cups while that of the
clover is in deep tubes. The bees are up and at it before sunrise,
and it takes a brisk shower to drive them in. But the clover blooms
later and blooms everywhere, and is the staple source of supply of the
finest quality of honey. The red clover yields up its stores only to
the longer proboscis of the bumble-bee, else the bee pasturage of our
agricultural districts would be unequaled. I do not know from what the
famous honey of Chamouni in the Alps is made, but it can hardly surpass
our best products. The snow-white honey of Anatolia in Asiatic Turkey,
which is regularly sent to Constantinople for the use of the grand
seignior and the ladies of his seraglio, is obtained from the cotton
plant, which makes me think that the white clover does not flourish
these. The white clover is indigenous with us; its seeds seem latent
in the ground, and the application of certain stimulants to the soil,
such as wood ashes, causes them to germinate and spring up.
The rose, with all its beauty and perfume, yields no honey to the bee,
unless the wild species be sought by the bumble-bee.
Among the humbler plants, let me not forget the dandelion that so early
dots the sunny slopes, and upon which the bee languidly grazes,
wallowing to his knees in the golden but not over-succulent pasturage.
>From the blooming rye and wheat the bee gathers pollen, also from the
obscure blossoms of Indian corn. Among weeds, catnip is the great
favorite. It lasts nearly the whole season and yields richly.
It could no doubt be profitably cultivated in some localities,
and catnip honey would be a novelty in the market. It would probably
partake of the aromatic properties of the plant from which it was
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